This past week, several luxury European manufacturers — Meridian Audio, Future Automation, Barco Residential, Display Technologies — invited a small group of dealers and reps from multiple states including California, Colorado, Texas, New York, Illinois, Washington, Georgia, and Florida to fly across the pond and visit their factories. They graciously invited me to tag along and I’ve been sharing my experiences and thoughts from the trip over the past two posts.
The visit included time for dealer, rep, and manufacturer focused chats to discuss specific needs and wants and how best to support the high-end residential market, along with opportunities to enjoy some of the local flavor surrounding each location. Our first stop was Huntingdon in the United Kingdom where we visited Meridian, which I detailed in this post. Our second visit was to Future Automation, manufacturer of some of the most innovative and bespoke lifts and motorized solutions in the industry, which I detailed in this post. Our final stop was Barco’s new world headquarters, known as The Circle.
The Americas account for 36 percent of Barco’s business, and they stressed the importance that high-end residential has to the company. “For us, the high-end residential market is not a rounding error like with some of the giants of consumer electronics,” explained Tim Sinnaeve, managing director of Barco Residential. “[Barco] is small enough where the residential market is still greatly important, and yet large enough to be able to design and deliver ultra-high-performance systems for demanding luxury installations.”
The company has ported many of the compelling aspects from its enterprise and medical systems such as demanding image quality and accuracy, along with ultra-high reliability, into residential products. They see that the key to growth lies with capturing, engaging, and developing the architecture and design communities and getting systems specified into projects earlier.
Our group took a car ride from Cambridge into King’s Cross Station in London where we boarded the EuroStar for a high-speed train trip through Channel tunnel to Barco. The train hits top speeds up near 190 mph, but is so smooth and quiet you have very little sense of the speed until you look out the window and catch glimpses of the passing scenery. We took the train to Lille, France, where we boarded cars for our drive into Ghent, which is an absolutely beautiful city with incredible character and architecture with buildings dating back more than 800 years. Around every corner was another incredible vista that begged to be explored.
We had enough time in Ghent to tour the Gravensteen (literally “Castle of the Counts”), a castle that dates back to 1180. Here you take a walking audio tour through the many rooms of the castle and learn some interesting history about the city and castle life along the way.
The top of the castle also offers some fantastic opportunities to see the city from all sides…as well as fend off any attacking marauders with conveniently placed openings for pouring down boiling oil or launching an archery attack.
You can’t visit Belgium without a stop at one of the many local pubs to enjoy some local beers. Belgium takes its beer very seriously (as it should), and every beer style is served in its own unique glass. I ordered a beer called “The boy from IPAnema” and when I asked the bartender what he could tell me about the beer, he said, “It is an IPA. On drought.” Sold.
Barco’s worldwide headquarters is located in Kortrijk, Belgium, and is known as One Campus, which houses The Circle, The Lab, The Pulse, and The Engine. Opened in May 2016, the company wanted the building’s industrial design to reflect the inspired design aesthetic the company puts into its residential units, and the company put out the design for bid to top designers. The completed design by John Eyers and Pierre Lallemand is gorgeous both inside and out and won an award. The entire campus is roughly 194,000 square feet with roughly 1300 employees working here. The Circle itself is 75 meters in diameter and 25 meters high.
Inside The Circle is plenty of open space letting in loads of natural light. There is a company restaurant and coffee bar, the Barco University training center, and meeting and office spaces, as well as The Cinema, which seats 170 people.
Manufacturing, fabrication, build, and testing of all products are performed inside The Engine. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed on the manufacturing floor due to privacy concerns, and our group had to suit up and wear anti-static rubber boots. Below are some images provided by Barco that give you a glimpse into The Engine.
The company splits its business between three market segments — Healthcare (24 percent), Entertainment (43 percent), which includes theme parks, event spaces, concerts, commercial, and residential cinema), and Enterprise (33 percent), which includes applications such as air traffic control, power grid management, and simulation.
Here is the medical display assembly bay where monitors are built and tested. These highly accurate monitors are used in operating theaters, labs, clinics, and dental practices around the world. Approximately 70 medical displays are made per day.
The company has a clean room where it manufactures and assembles its own DMD assemblies for projectors. All projectors go into a four-hour stress test to check operation along with thermal performance prior to final panel and optical alignment checks before shipping. All projectors are checked electronically and optically by a trained operator prior to leaving the factor. The company assembles approximately 42 projectors across its full line during an eight-hour day.
Displaying part of its Enterprise solutions, these “data cubes” utilize laser projection technology with rear-projection screens butted tight to each other, resulting in a zero-gap image with perfect overlap and alignment for text and data clarity in mission-critical applications such as power grid management and air traffic control.
This space uses 3D projection across multiple screen surfaces (this room projected onto two walls and the floor) and is used for modeling and prototyping.
Large screen projection displays in commercial environments such as arenas, stadiums, and amusement parks are a big part of the company’s Enterprise business. By using different projection technologies such as ultra-high lumen output, image warping and alignment, and different throw lenses with humongous offset capabilities, the company can execute custom solutions on a large scale. The company’s products are also widely used for projection mapping displays.
Barco was founded in 1934 and has operated continuously under the Barco name — which is actually an acronym for Belgian American Radio Corporation — since its start. They own all of their own technology and currently hold 340 patents.
The Circle features a high-end residential theater currently outfitted with a Prometheus I DCI 4K projector that utilizes a Xenon lamp capable of delivering up to 6500 lumens for ultra-bright and cinematic images even on the largest screen sizes and when projecting HDR content. (This model has now largely been replaced by the Prometheus III, which features a laser light engine, and can produce twice the contrast with up to 11,500 lumens.) The theater features a roughly 13-foot wide Display Technologies screen using the company’s new “Wow” high-contrast acoustically transparent fabric, and features a suite of Meridian loudspeakers.
They also displayed the new Bragi Cinemascope, a projector the company is very excited about that is designed for residential installations in the $25–35k price range. Bragi Cinemascope is the company’s smallest 5K (5120×2160) projector and is designed to deliver the highest quality images for both 16×9 and 2.40:1 content. It will deliver 2100 lumens from an RGB light source and handle 4K HDR with screen sizes recommended up to 12-feet wide. The projector also features ultra-low fan noise for in-room operation, and can be place in a massive variety of off-center locations due to the company’s projection warping technology, which produced no visible artifacts I could detect.
“Bragi is the brighter, smaller, quieter projector that has all of the answers for what dealers have been asking for,” according to Daniel Nilsson, Barco’s director of business development – high end residential.
Barco projectors also include a very cool feature the company calls “Prospector.” This allows for full remote IP control, diagnostics, calibration, system operation; etc. You can also query the projector for any control IP command to use in a third-party control system.
The highlight of the factory tour was a visit to The Circle’s very own full-blown commercial cinema! This luxury theater is capable of seating 170 people with a full immersive surround array (Barco happens to own Auro-3D, a competing immersive surround format to Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, which is far more popular in Europe than it is in the States). The room had actually been rented for the day for a company holding meetings and training, but we were able to spend about 20 minutes in the theater and watch some brief film clips.
The Theater’s projected image area is roughly 37-feet wide x 15-feet high and uses a matte white screen from Harkness Screens. The audio system utilizes an APX AuroMax special audio processor, and features 36 JBL loudspeakers (six 3-way screen arrays, 22 surrounds, and eight ceiling/height layer speakers), and a massive JBS 5628 dual 18-inch cinema sub, all driven by 26 Crown amplifiers.
The projection booth at the rear of the theater houses a variety of different projectors (along with the chillers for the lasers and the massive power supplies) from what Barco labels its C-series. These are actual commercial cinema chassis that have been adjusted to deliver higher contrast ratios and be able to handle consumer sources such as Apple TV and Kaleidescape Strato up to 4K HDR in 60 fps. The projectors can also be fully DCI compliant for those in the Bel Aire crowd to watch day-and-date films at home.
We watched images from the flagship of Barco’s C-series line-up, the mighty Thor+. This beast is built by hand and utilizes a 6P RGB laser system for increased contrast while blasting out up to 32,000 ANSI lumens! It can handle high frame rates up to 3D at 120 fps (60 fps per eye). We watched images from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in 3D and the image quality was jaw dropping. The image depth and detail was so incredible, I found myself distracted by looking at stray hairs in Gandalf’s beard. Thor+ delivers a best-possible-theater-experience in an actual residential environment for the true performance-at-any-price high-end customer.